Updated: Oct 31, 2019
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea. Before we go a step further let's clarify how the Romans governed Judea.
The Romans came into the region in 63 B.C. and took over rule. They wanted to control the land near their hated enemy, the Persians. They thought the people inhabiting the area had a strange religion, but continued to let them practice it at first. They just didn't care about that. The Romans imposed heavy taxation on the people they ruled.
The Romans didn't just come in and conquer the entire area at once. Their empire gradually spread over time. They would gain one area and appoint a ruler. In 37 B.C. they appointed Herod the Great as "king" over the region. Herod the Great was technically Jewish because his father had converted to Judaism. But he was much more interested in the power Rome could give him. None of the Herods were religious men. When Herod the Great died in about 4 B.C. his three sons were appointed by the Romans to rule over different regions. His son Archelaus became ruler over half a "kingdom" which included Judea and therefore, Jerusalem. He mismanaged his power and in A.D. 6 Rome began appointing governors over the area. They called these governors "prefects."
Being prefect of Judea was not a good job. It was just a temporary assignment usually for one to three years. The Romans sent in few Roman troops to Judea. The prefect or governor left the day to day running of the Jewish people and their "strange" religion to the Sanhedrin - the chief priests and high priest. But the Sanhedrin were very much under the control of the Roman prefect. They did what the Roman governor wanted or they were replaced.
Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea from A.D. 26-36. He was there just to keep peace in the region. And to make sure those taxes got back to Rome.
It is worth noting that two other Roman governors of Judea are mentioned in the biblical account - Felix and Festus. But realize there were other Roman governors of the region. Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, also ruled this region for a time.
Only the Roman governor could declare a person guilty and sentence them to death. He had the sole authority to order the execution of a criminal. The high priests wanted to get rid of Jesus. We know they felt threatened by Jesus' influence over the people. They charged Jesus with blasphemy, but this charge wasn't going to get them anywhere with Pilate. So when they took Jesus to Pilate they said He was an insurgent - claiming to be the King of the Jews; riling the people up. Caesar was the king of the Jews. Claiming this title would be seen as rebellion.
Pilate asks Jesus point blank, "Are You the King of the Jews?" And Jesus said to him, "It is as you say." (Matthew 27:11) The chief priests made their case against Jesus, but Jesus was silent.
During the Passover feast it was the custom of the Roman governor to release one Jewish prisoner. Pilate's wife warns him not to judge Jesus as guilty. Pilate gives them a choice between Jesus and Barabbas.
Barabbas was an insurrectionist (and a murderer and robber) - one who wanted to overthrow Rome's rule in the region. Both Barabbas and Jesus were being charged with the exact same crime!
The crowd asks for Barabbas to be released. Pilate asks them what should he do with Jesus? They all said, "Crucify Him!" (Matthew 27:22b)
Pilate asks them what evil has He done? But they kept shouting all the more, saying, "Crucify Him!" Pilate saw a riot starting. His job was to keep peace. Pilate tells the crowd, "I am innocent of this Man's blood; see to that yourselves." (Matthew 27:24b)
Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified.
When you read the words of Pilate in the four Gospels, you get the sense that he was very hesitant to order the crucifixion of Jesus. What we do know about Pilate is that he was not afraid to kill those who were plotting against Rome. In Luke 13:1 we are told Pilate had Galileans who had come to the temple in Jerusalem killed - their blood mixed with that of their sacrifices. Josephus the first century Jewish historian recorded that after Jesus was crucified Pilate had a Samaritan and his followers killed. Pilate was more than willing to perform his Roman assignment of putting down rebellion. However, it was the brutal slaughter of these Samaritans which brought Pilate down. He was ordered to Rome to answer to the emperor for his actions.
Somehow Pilate seemed to hesitate judging Jesus as guilty. Pilate repeatedly says "I find no guilt in this man." (John 18:38b)
(There is some tendency to sympathize with Pilate. In this situation he was in a tough spot. There have over history been some who have venerated Pilate. Don't. He was a Roman doing his job which entailed slaughtering anyone who opposed Rome.)
Luke's account tells us that when Pilate realized Jesus was a Galilean, and the ruler of Galilee was in Jerusalem, he had Jesus sent to him. This ruler was none other than Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. (Luke 3:1 tells us Herod was tetrarch of Galilee.) Herod questioned Jesus, but Jesus did not reply. Herod and his soldiers treated Jesus with contempt and mocked Him, but found no guilt in Him and sent Jesus back to Pilate. Interesting this account tells us that from that very day on Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate became friends. (Luke 23:12)
Move forward in Scripture to the prayer lifted up by Peter and John and their companions in Acts 4:23-31and note in verse 27 that both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel were gathered together against Jesus. And note in verse 28 that God's hand and His purpose predestined it to occur.
Back to the biblical account: Pilate again tells the chief priests and people, "You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him. Therefore I will punish Him and release Him." (Luke 23:14-16)
However, the crowd was insistent. "Release Barabbas." "Crucify Jesus."
Scripture tells us Pilate delivered Jesus to their will. (Luke 23:25)
And so it was ordered by the Roman governor that our Lord and Savior, the true King of the Jews, would be put to death in the most cruel way imaginable.
Our hearts ache when we read the biblical accounts. And I hope you do read each of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus before Pilot - Matthew 27:11-26/ Mark 15:1-15/ Luke 23:1-25/ John 18:28-19:16. With an understanding of the people involved you will have fresh insight.
Judas Betrayed Jesus to the chief priests for 30 pieces of silver and with a kiss and declaration of "Rabbi." Judas hung himself.
The Chief Priests Plotted to have Jesus killed. They needed to get rid of Him to maintain their power and prestige.
Peter Denied he knew Jesus three times. With the shame of this Peter went on to be a prominent person in the early church. An example for us all that when we screw up, God will take us back.
We are quite familiar with the accounts of those around Jesus. Judas betrayed Him, His disciples deserted Him, the religious leaders sought His death, and Pilate could find no guilt in Him but gave in to the crowd to keep a riot from occurring. It all breaks our heart what our Savior faced alone. But keep the focus on the empty tomb where Jesus proves He is the Victor. A celebration is coming!